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A growing shortlist, whittled down from an epic list, of the best PC games ever.
By Nathan Lawrence
This is, by far, the toughest "best of" list I’ve ever had to write. And I’ve written my fair share.
Why’s it so tricky? Well, the not-so-humble PC is the biggest gaming platform on the planet, and will likely be as long as we have electricity and an Internet connection (in that order). Amid the sheer quantity of games released – thousands every year when you take the bright indie space into account – there’s a growing list of quality titles.
The best bit: they’re not exclusively old-school pixelated games that are beautified by rose-tinted monocles, and nor are they wholly recent-ish titles. I’ve been a PC gamer for more than a quarter of a century, and I’ve adored a lot of games in that time. Here’s the thing. I’d have trouble picking the top ten all-time FPS, RTS, or RPG games on PC, let alone a shortlist that accurately combines these genres (and others).
What follows is a very personal top ten for me, even though I’ve somewhat curbed my desire to completely stack it with some of the best FPS and RTS titles to ever grace the PC. You won’t find any controversial entries in here (yet; it’s an ever-growing list), but you’ll find a good representation of the kinds of titles that helped shape my (and others') gaming tastes over the course of more than two decades of being an avid PC gaming fan.
If you feel there are any glaring omissions, the chances are good that those titles will be coming in a future update to this list. It’s impossible to look at a gaming platform that has handfuls of quality releases each year, some of which rightfully gain legendary status, without leaving some of the best must-play games of all time out in the cold (for now). Unlike my other best-of lists, I don’t have any omissions to call attention to at this stage, but I do encourage you to return every month or so to see the list grow.
I’ve been a gamer since I first emigrated to Australia in 1989. While my brothers and I waited for our toys to arrive (by ship), our parents bought an Atari, and I fell in love with games like Space Invaders, Pong, and River Raid.
Fast-forward a few years, and my brothers and I were fighting over who got to play Wolfenstein 3D on the family computer. Later in life, I risked my older brother's wrath to play games on his PC when he bought one. Eventually, I saved pennies from my menial job to buy my first gaming PC when I was in high school. My folks thought I was studying in my room, but really I was sinking hours into Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat.
While my parents condemned my apparent gaming addiction during my teenage years (I was even banned from computers for a year at one point), little did they know it was essential training for what would later become my career. I’m currently in my tenth year as a freelance games critic who spends most of his professional time writing about PC games, and I finally saw the rewards of saving for three years to buy a beastly 4K-ready desktop.
- PLATFORMS: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Mac, Linux, Android
- RELEASE DATE: 10 October 2007
- DEVELOPER: Valve Corporation
- PUBLISHER: Valve Corporation
Okay, so I told a fib in my intro. I said there were no controversial omissions but technically, here’s one right out of the gate. I have fonder memories of Portal than I do of Portal 2. Despite Portal 2’s more expansive story, nuttier characters and genuinely fun co-op mode, the original Portal was a game that I loved playing and, strangely, watching friends play.
Figuring out how to crack the increasingly trickier puzzles was a delight whether you were in the pilot’s seat, or playing as a backseat driver. Portal was one of the first games (if not the first game) to really challenge players to solve riddles in three-dimensional space. As a fan of adventure games growing up, this was like next-level stretching of my grey matter.
The other main thing that the original Portal has that Portal 2 lost in its multi-platform translation was puzzles that also rewarded quick reactions and fast aim. Presumably, these types of puzzles were regrettably absent from the sequel, because such fast-and-accurate feats aren’t as easy to repeat on controllers. But as an old-school shooter fan, they rewarded the types of skills I’d been honing since Wolfenstein 3D.
- PLATFORMS: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
- RELEASE DATE: 5 May 2017
- DEVELOPER: Arkane Studios
- PUBLISHER: Bethesda Softworks
As fond as I am of the gravity-defying 2006 version, and as angry as I was when the promising Prey 2 was cancelled, this entry is dedicated to a whole lot of love for Arkane Studios’ Prey. It’s a game that empowers players to try new things, not just in gameplay but also in character, and make narrative decisions that have big and often unforeseen consequences.
The minute-to-minute gameplay regularly and seamlessly shifts between tense and intense, plus there’s a clever (but subtle) risk/reward upgrade system that makes you trade power fantasy for greater vulnerability. It is in every sense of the word a modern-day classic, and one of the best action-RPGs ever made. In fact, it’s so good that game-breaking bugs weren’t enough to stop me from finishing it.
Though reportedly patched now, such was my immersive addiction to seeking closure on Prey’s storyline (while taking a completionist approach to side content), I copped two simultaneous bugs (the inventory one, and the unmarked objective in space one) that would have made me rage at any other game. As an easily-frustrated gamer, any title that can compel me to persevere beyond such bugs is clearly incredible in its appeal (if not in optimisation).
Click for Prey PC from Green Man Gaming
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- PLATFORMS: PC
- RELEASE DATE: 28 September 1999
- DEVELOPER: Relic Entertainment
- PUBLISHER: Sierra Studios
Relic Entertainment’s Homeworld series was so far ahead of its time, its forward-thinking design hasn’t been replicated or bested to this day. While the world was (and still is) content to have strategy battles in two dimensions, Relic’s 3D battles, rock-paper-scissors unit design, and meaningful formations were iconic features.
On top of this, your units carried over between missions, which was either a positive or negative, depending on how well you performed in the last mission. It was great if you’d dominated, but it sucked if your forces had been dwindled.
You wouldn’t know it at the time, but starting a new mission after a close win might mean you don’t have a force that’s capable of withstanding a surprise attack at the start of the next mission. You basically had to restart.
This may sound frustrating, but players who persevered and refused to throw in the towel against tough AI foes were rewarded with a sense of strategic satisfaction unmatched in other strategy games. Losing a single unit in Homeworld hurt, and it was this emotional attachment to your army, championed by mission-to-mission veterancy, that made a gripping sense of tension build with each passing mission.
7. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- PLATFORMS: PC, Xbox, Mac, iOS, Android
- RELEASE DATE: 05 December 2003
- DEVELOPER: BioWare
- PUBLISHER: LucasArts
Before there was the division of Mass Effect Andromeda (or Mass Effect 3 before that), BioWare was a developer many gamers saw as godlike. While Baldur’s Gate was the start of that legend, BioWare cemented itself as a storytelling powerhouse with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Though not part of the official canon, such was its impact that parts of BioWare’s Star Wars story have started slipping back into official post-George Lucas Star Wars lore.
At the time, the graphics were top-notch, and the Star Wars soundscape was understandably pitch-perfect. However, the real shining star was the sheer depth of gameplay mechanics and a plot twist so awesome that even 14 years after release, I won’t mention for risk of spoiling it. It’s still that good. Given the shaky quality of Star Wars games (and their stories, where relevant) in recent years, it’s important to flag that the expectation that there were still amazing Star Wars stories to tell after the release of the divisive prequel movies started with Knights of the Old Republic.
6. Deus Ex
- PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, PlayStation 2
- RELEASE DATE: 17 June 2000
- DEVELOPER: Ion Storm
- PUBLISHER: Eidos Interactive
I loved and had finished this game before I even knew how to pronounce its title. At this point of my gaming life, I was almost exclusively a fan of real-time-strategy and first-person-shooter games. I’d wager the only reason I even took a punt on Deus Ex was because I mistakenly thought it was an FPS.
How wrong I was, and how glad I was to be so wrong. The first thing that grabbed me was the conspiracy theory-rich storytelling. The next thing was the player empowerment through gameplay choices. This’ll likely sound silly in light of the countless action-RPGs that have been released in the last 17 years, but I was blown away by the fact that I could hack a door open, steal a code to open it or blow it off its hinges.
However, more important than this was how I was genuinely stressed out by the branching storyline, to the point where I created specific capital-letter saves at important junctures. Sometimes it was just to test what would happen. Other times, it was so I could return to that decision and see how the game played out afterwards. Deus Ex hasn’t aged so well visually (mods can address that to a certain extent), but its gameplay is still incredible today.
Click for Deus Ex PC from Green Man Gaming
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5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- PLATFORMS: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
- RELEASE DATE: 19 May 2015
- DEVELOPER: CD Projekt Red
- PUBLISHER: CD Projekt
The thing I’ll always chuckle about with The Witcher 3 is how much I love the game, even though I sank way more hours into the side quests and world exploration than I did into the main campaign. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy the main storyline, far from it; it’s because there are so many worthy distractions in The Witcher 3, they were impossible for me to ignore.
To put this into context, one of my friends has played close to 36 hours of the game and has unlocked 57 percent of the achievements, I assume by playing the main path. My play time is currently at 62 hours and I’ve only unlocked 23 percent of the achievements. The Witcher 3 is a game I return to during times of quiet gaming because you can pick up where you left off (especially if you love the side quests like I do), and it’s always rewarding.
It helps that it’s gorgeous, particularly on a high-end PC. But really, CD Projekt Red has crafted such a beautifully realised world, the Continent has fast become my preferred digital holiday destination.
Click to buy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt PC from ozgameshop.com
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4. Quake III Arena
- PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Linux, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, iOS
- RELEASE DATE: 02 December 1999
- DEVELOPER: id Software
- PUBLISHER: Activision
I’m determined to restrict myself to one game from each series (even the amazing ones), and settling on Quake III Arena over the first two Quakes was no easy task. The original Quake gave the world deathmatch, and was shooter fans' first taste of true 3D shooting. In every sense of the word, it was a game-changer.
Quake II had a solid campaign, amazing soundtrack and gifted the series with the almighty railgun. But Quake III was arguably the most seminal and the most fun. It would go on to provide the engine for the birth of the Call of Duty and the original Half-Life franchises.
Beyond this, Quake III was gorgeous at the time. It ran like a dream (even on low-end PCs), and like Portal’s 3D puzzling, it cemented the idea that you often battled in three dimensions.
Nowadays, the term "verticality" refers to fighting enemies standing above or below you. In the days of Quake III, it meant fighting enemies who used rocket-jumps to propel themselves at impossible speeds over your head. This meant you could quite literally be fragged from 360 degrees.
When you thought you were good at the core multiplayer, mods like Rocket Arena 3 stepped in to show how much you had to learn.
Click for Quake III Arena PC from Green Man Gaming
Discover the greatest warrior within you through more complex arenas and against tougher opponents, today!View details
3. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
- PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Wii, Amiga
- RELEASE DATE: June 1992
- DEVELOPER: LucasArts
- PUBLISHER: LucasArts
Of all the point-and-click games that came out of LucasArts during the golden age of adventure games, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis continues to be my all-time favourite. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, The Dig, and Grim Fandango are all incredible, but Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis has a clever and innate replay-ability. It also stands as the best Indiana Jones story since Last Crusade.
While the later Monkey Island games had two difficulty settings, Fate of Atlantis had a lengthy middle section that played out differently depending on an early game choice. You could play it as more of an action game, a puzzle-heavy experience, or with cooperative puzzles in tandem with NPC Sophia Hapgood. These three distinct paths meant there were a bunch of hours in the middle of the game that played out completely differently in terms of their puzzles.
Some of these brain-scratchers were genuinely challenging, and the kind you forget when returning to it years after your last play-through (I’ve done this more than once). But ultimately it showed that LucasArts knew more about Indiana Jones than Lucasfilm did, splicing action, adventure, history, religious artefacts, Nazi enemies and plenty of humour into an offering worthy of the eponymous character.
Click to buy Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis PC from Play Asia
The plot is set in the fictional Indiana Jones universe. The player explores the game's static environments while interacting with sprite-based characters and objects!View details
2. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
- PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, PlayStation 2
- RELEASE DATE: 30 September 1999
- DEVELOPER: Ensemble Studios
- PUBLISHER: Microsoft
Clearly, 1999 was a hell of a year for gaming. Not counting the two games already listed here, it also included System Shock 2, Unreal Tournament, and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. There’s a lot of reasons why Age of Kings received universal acclaim, has been HD-ified, is set to receive a Definitive Edition and is beloved by fans still today.
Not only did it improve on what Ensemble had built in the original Age of Empires, it added genre-defining features, like idle unit buttons, a town bell for calling villagers back to safety, and the option to customise keys for maximum actions-per-minute (a feature we take for granted nowadays). Before the Total War series was born, Age of Empires was the best way to have fun while learning about history, but mostly it was about building a sprawling town, appropriate defences and an army for taming the hostile game world.
While core units were familiar across the board, which made learning other factions a whole lot easier, the unique units helped define your play style (Longbowmen were amazing). I honestly never got into competitive multiplayer, but I lost dozens of hours to co-op bot matches against the challenging AI, which often ended with my friends and me bunkering down at the spawn point that was the most easily defended.
1. Half-Life 2
- PLATFORMS: PC, Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Mac, Linux, Android
- RELEASE DATE: 16 November 2004
- DEVELOPER: Valve Corporation
- PUBLISHER: Valve Corporation
When you work in the games industry, you’ve got to have an answer for "What’s the best game of all time?" or, "What’s your favourite game of all time?". No matter which variation of this question I get, the answer is the same: Half-Life 2. It was a six-year wait between the original mostly fantastic Half-Life and its sequel, and Half-Life was already a game-changer, most notably in the mod space.
Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is still a peerless first-person-shooter experience. It doesn’t need fancy RPG systems or branching narratives to be effective. Instead, it’s built atop tight shooter gameplay, amazing world-building, and a narrative approach that rewards curious players eager to learn more about this subtly but beautifully realised story.
Enemies are diverse, the set pieces are suitably epic, the soundtrack is fantastic, and it gave the gaming world the gravity gun: a weapon that let you turn a toilet into a bullet. Instead of doing a lazy sequel that offered more of the same, Valve went all out by creating an entirely new enemy in the kind of follow-up that feels like the developer could create a whole new game set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Or maybe they could just make Half-Life 3.
Click for Half-Life 2 PC from ozgameshop.com
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